I’m Cheating on AP Style

by Charmaine on April 3, 2009

Let me say that another way: I’m not being entirely faithful to AP style.

If I’m editing for a client who prefers AP style or Chicago style, I’ll be consistent to the point of compulsion. But for my own personal blog posts, I find myself picking and choosing, sometimes respecting authority and sometimes not.

Take Website/Web site/website, for example. AP and Chicago both prefer “Web site.” If I’m reading between the lines correctly, AP seems to be holding fast almost out of spite. Here’s a typical answer from their Ask the Editor (ahem) Web site: “AP uses Web site as two words. We decided early on that Web site was a component or part of the World Wide Web, not a compound noun based on it.”

Chicago’s position, on the other hand, seems a teensy bit more flexible, while making things a bit murky with the whole intended-audience question. If it’s “formal writing,” they say, use “Web site,” and if it’s “informal” or “friendly” writing, “website” is acceptable.

I personally prefer website; I think that by now, people think of it and speak it as a single word. I’m also typically pro-lowercase; wiping out rampant and unnecessary capitalization is one of my causes.

Still, I cannot stop myself from writing Web site in my blog. Perhaps I sympathize with AP’s flag staking here when the troops are so obviously advancing. Yes, they’re being obstinate, but I suppose I admire their principles … except when it comes to the serial comma.

Here’s where I draw the line. (A little curvy line with a dot at the top.)  I simply don’t understand why AP seems to want to grant so much power to the word “and” when just a little comma could clear up any possible ambiguity. I suspect the rule goes back to when printing presses had to set type; column spaces were fixed and the comma fell victim to character cutbacks.

So that’s why I’m not quite 100 percent faithful to AP in my blog — just in case it was keeping you up at night.

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Twitter, Language, and Brevity

by Charmaine on March 26, 2009

Twitter is fascinating in many ways, but for me, two things stand out. (If you don’t know what Twitter is, click here.)

If you google “evolution of language on Twitter,” you’ll find some great posts that describe the social science at work within Twitter. They imply that Twitter is one giant grooming site where the gift of language allows Homo sapiens to broadcast from a distance, increasing the likelihood of attracting mates while preserving survival by leaving the rest of our bodies free for self-defense.

That’s a pretty deep analysis for a deceptively simple Web site.

Although the sociological aspects are intriguing, I’m naturally more interested in Twitter’s impact on the English language and how it’s design contraints have placed a value (almost in terms of currency) on words.

The Twitter community is the Twitterverse. Posts are tweets. Twitter friends are tweeps. Face-to-face meetings with your tweeps, organized by tweets, are tweetups.

So many new words evolved from the word Twitter that someone created a twittonary.

I jumped on the “tw-” bandwagon too, choosing tweditor as my user name.

Twisting existing words for Twitter can get rather silly, of course, and not every tword will survive. But many of the basic terms will, if only because Twitter’s sheer novelty demanded a novel vocabulary.

Twitterers are also repurposing existing words. Take via, for example. This word spun off from RT, or  “re-tweet,” which is similar to the “FW:” in an e-mail subject line. I’ve been impressed by the degree to which Twitterers properly attribute original sources using RT.

Quite recently, someone suggested that the Twitterverse adopt “via” to indicate the editing of another’s tweet, since RT usually means that the tweet was pasted verbatim. And this entire discussion took place within Twitter, essentially crowdsourcing the decision to use “via.”

It’s startling to watch this happen in real time.

The other amazing thing about Twitter is that it’s the strictest editor going. Everyone on Twitter must limit their tweets to 140 characters. This sounds reasonable in theory, but it’s quite difficult in practice. There you are, typing away; before you know it, you’re in the negative character zone. How can you compress your thought? Get to the point faster? Use shorter words?

Twitter’s character limits necessitate descriptive language and headline-like summaries. Of course, it’s possible to continue a thought in additional tweets, but this occurs rarely. Even for editors skilled in “omit[ting] needless words” (per Strunk and White), tweets offer a challenging but exhilerating exercise.

This inevitable distillation of thought can only be good for us all. As Twitter signs up more users every day (the company’s YoY growth from February 2008 to February 2009 was 1,382 percent), the quantity of tweets will only increase. If nothing else, the 140-character limit suggests that you trend toward quality. (I personally won’t follow people whose tweets are boring; see this video for a hilarious parody of Twitter’s mundane side.)

Despite being in favor of tweetspeak, I am concerned that conjunctions will go on the endangered species list, sacrificed for the sake of succinctness. I also don’t want to see the “text-ification” of tweets: ppl instead of people, u instead of you, 2 instead of too.

I just hope that the majority of users will value workhorse words that, while taking up valuable space with their too-long character counts, will preserve readability across Twitter’s vast audience. In a way, it’s a survival mechanism too. Twitter needs language conventions — there’s too much conversational crosspollination, and the speed at which the conversation moves demands instantenous comprehension.

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The Most Passive Sentence of All Time

by Charmaine on March 25, 2009

Special approvals are required for the release of information to be presented in public forums, such as conferences or published in trade journals and the like, so that appropriate consideration may be given to whether information may be patentable and … intellectual property may be properly protected.

Wow.

This is the Atlantis of passive sentences, the meaning obscured beneath an ocean of “are”s, “to”s, “may”s, and “be”s.

Plus, it’s not really easy to fix, unless you know who’s:

1. Requiring special approvals.

2. Presenting the information in public forums.

3. Giving appropriate consideration.

4. Patenting the information.

5. Properly protecting the intellectual property.

Let’s say that the answer to No. 2 is an employee (who is also the audience for this message) and that the answer to Nos. 1, 3, 4, and 5 is a law firm called Dewey, Cheatum & Howe (get it?). If I assigned responsibility for the actions described in the sentence, it would sound something like this:

If you’ll be speaking in a public forum such as a conference or publishing an article in a trade journal, Dewey, Cheatum & Howe requires that you obtain special approval before releasing the information. Our lawyers must consider whether your intellectual property needs a patent or other protective measures.

I did take a bit of liberty with this (and could go even further with the first person plural “we” instead of “our lawyers”), but I hope you’ll agree that it’s more clear.

I’m curious to see other attempts to active-ate the sentence. How would you fix it?

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Geeking Out with Punctuation

by Charmaine on March 20, 2009

On Twitter, @GrammarGirl tweeted a link to a CollegeHumor video about a punctuation recession. It was a cute idea for a satire, but I found it a bit self-indulgent, and too far removed from reality. Believe me, there’s plenty of actual stuff happening in this economy worth satirizing.

Still, it reminded me of my favorite punctuation-related idea (besides National Punctuation Day or anything on Etsy featuring punctuation). I’d love to attempt this improv/Whose Line is it Anyway?-esque party idea. Who’s with me?

A Punctuation Party

A “writer” station at the door writes boldly on every party goer’s white T-Shirt a punctuation symbol. The person, no matter what his or her punctuation symbol, must act as it would in a sentence. For example, a person with…
-An exclamation point would be incredulous! At all times! Chug!
-A period would tell it how it is. Clear statements, no room for confusion. Period.
-With three periods would ramble on and trail off in every possible conversational activity. It would be their job to go on and on and on by telling fake stories, making noises, mumbling …
-A question mark would formulate everything in a questionable way? Both questions, but also questionable comments? Pick up lines?
-For those that the “writer” at the door deems capable, he or she should emblazon a colon, semicolon, or hyphen onto the unlucky partygoer. And don’t forget about the possibilities of Spanish symbols!

I’m sorry I can’t give credit or link to the URL where I found this, even after much googling. I know I found it on Sept. 25, 2008. If you can track down the site, please send it to me. Apologies to the creator(s) (whose work I did not edit so that it would be easier to find).

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Maddening, Myopic AP

by Charmaine on March 19, 2009

As a high-tech editor, I usually adhere to Associated Press style, despite the fact that the AP Stylebook is a poor fit for technical language. I alluded to this two posts back, so I thought I’d elaborate.

I’m following many journalists on Twitter who are lamenting the continuing demise of the newspaper industry. There’s a lot of talk about how newspapers were slow to react to the Internet, digging their heels in and resisting change.

And this is how I feel about AP. It’s as if they have no idea how popular they are. They’re the Amazon of style guides and yet they refuse to even consider style issues that wouldn’t show up in newsprint.

Here’s a prime example. While at Texas Instruments, I tackled a controversy among communicators concerning the hyphenation of numbers and units of measurement.

Because the entries in the AP Stylebook were most unhelpful, I turned to its Ask the Editor column, which truthfully has saved me many times when someone asks about timeframe or time frame, or worksite or work site.

I thought very carefully about how to word my question. I had to think like a newspaper editor. Apple had just released the iPhone, so I thought about what the editors of a technology section might come across. I googled the iPhone specs and picked one to use as an example. The other example came from Texas Instruments.

Here’s my exact question and AP’s ridiculous non-answer answer:

Q: About your Aug. 30 answer re: spaces but no hyphens with numbers and measurement abbreviations, how would you treat 32 bit edge triggered D type flip-flop or 20 Hz frequency response (an iPhone spec)? The AP stylebook entry for kilobyte calls for no space (64KB, a 400KB file). Please standardize the treatment of numbers and measurements, both stand-alone and as modifiers. — from Dallas, Texas on Tue, Nov 06, 2007

A: Good suggestion to update the entries. In meantime, for easier reading, we’d advise against stacking the terminology.

What kind of answer is this? First, why does AP need me to prod them to update their entries? Second, what makes AP think that editors have a choice in “stacking” the terminology? If the flip-flop (and yes, this is an actual technical term referring to a two-state device used for data storage and transfer) has these characteristics and they’re all important, should editors begin haphazardly deleting them for the sake of easy reading? After all, engineers can’t decide what parts to buy unless they know the specs; otherwise the part might not work in their design.

The other thing that infuriates me about this response, of course, is the fact that the AP editor ignored the question. If the entire sentence read, “The new iPhone has a 20 Hz frequency response,” how is that stacking the terminology? Would it have been that difficult to say yes, use a hyphen, or no, it’s clear in this instance that hertz is modifying 20, not frequency, and therefore you don’t need a hyphen?

And this is why AP drives me crazy.

(By the way, I hyphenate numbers and units of measurement when they modify a noun, although I could be persuaded to eliminate hyphens and spaces completely.)

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Editing Spam

by Charmaine on March 14, 2009

Am I missing out on a primo opportunity to be pitching my services as an editor for spam? Because, really, take a gander at this hot mess:

Attention,

I wish to bring to your knowledge that your previous Won prize has been cancelled and you are now re-awarded sum of Seven Hundred and Eighty Thousand Dollars ($780,000.00USD) only on facts below :

A. Your Fiduciary Agent was discovered to be corrupt.

B.The Organisation want all Winners to claim their Won prize through Bank only and no longer want any of its winners to have anything to do with Agent.

C.The only Accredited Bank we now have as Affiliate paying Bank is Halifax Bank Plc. D. We also discovered that you were too delay in claiming your previous Won Prize.

Now what you are to do is to send a email to the paying Bank : Halifax Bank plc via email [the address was here].

and inform them of this development that you are One of the winners who the winnings has been re awarded.

What really got my attention, though, was the excessive capitalization. I’m always trying to remind my clients that capitalizing a common noun only for extra promotional value achieves the opposite effect — it’s like crying wolf. The more You Capitalize, Especially arbitrarily, The less People will Pay Attention to You and think You are Weird.

Just for kicks, I edited the spam. I wish I could post a track changes visible version, but the clean version will have to do:

Please note that we have canceled your previous prize. You will receive the sum of US $780,000 based on these facts:

A. We discovered that your fiduciary agent was corrupt.

B. The organization wants all winners to claim their prizes through the bank only; we no longer want any winners to have anything to do with the fiduciary agent.

C. The only accredited bank we now have as an affiliate is Halifax Bank Plc.

D. We also discovered that you were too late in claiming your previous prize.

Please send an e-mail to Halifax Bank Plc at [address here] and inform them that you are one of the winners whose winnings have been re-awarded.

I’d love to see some click-through stats comparing grammatically correct spam (if such a thing exists) versus the kind of spam we’re used to. I realize that many spammers may be non-native English speakers, but how is it that they’re also uniformly poor writers?

Maybe I’ve missed the point. Poor grammar and formatting is still noticeable. And isn’t that what spammers want?

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Dash Clash — En or Em

by Charmaine on March 13, 2009

I’ve noticed that WordPress is automatically converting double hyphens in my posts to em dashes, and I’m not happy.

At my last job (shoutout to all TIers), we had a quarterly meeting of the Writers Guild, where we took up just such controversies. Nothing makes me more riled up (think crazed football fan) than the opportunity to debate a style issue.

When “en or em” appeared on our agenda, we perused a very wide range of consumer and trade magazines to see if we could determine prevalent usage (naturally AP is no help on this one — thanks again for being so obstinate and antiquated, AP, but that’s another post for another time).

Usage was all over the place. Not only were some publications using em over en, some were giving each mark a space on either side and some weren’t. I found the em dash with no spaces particularly claustrophobic. If the point of using a dash is to ask the reader to pause (moreso than a comma, colon, or semicolon could), it would seem to me that crowding this long horizontal line between words on either side is counterintuitive.

TI’s Writers Guild decided to go with space-en-dash-space, and it’s been to my eye the “right” dash ever since. It’s long enough to be clearly distinctive from a hyphen and the spaces on either side help accentuate the visual interruption in the text.

An em-dash with spaces seems excessive and heavy-handed to me —  all nouveau riche and self-centered. So although I’ll put up with this automatic conversion to em dashes, at least you’ll know what I really think.

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Happy National Grammar Day!

by Charmaine on March 4, 2009

Ah, the geekiest of holidays has arrived. It’s a time to remember that grammatically correct sentences do not just write themselves.

If, however, you aren’t quite able to discern when to use “these” and when to use “those,” or when an “all” needs an “of,” or why “no longer” really belongs after the “is,” never fear — I am here.

Lest you think I’ve imagined this holiday, here’s the Web site for National Grammar Day, brought to you by the Society for the Promotion of Good Grammar.

Personally, though, I’m privy to National Punctuation Day — only 204 more days to go!

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The Mighty I

by Charmaine on March 1, 2009

Every issue of Entertainment Weekly has a what’s hot/what’s not sidebar, and I’m loving this week’s reference:

In: I/Me
Five Minutes Ago: Their/There/They’re
Out: Its/It’s

Perhaps I’m misreading the author’s intent, but my thoughts instantly went to pronoun usage.

I’m a big proponent of the first person “I/me” in all communications, even the drollest white papers and technical articles. “I” is an instant dollop of life, of power, of humanity. “I” has within it vulnerability and can strengthen connections between writers and readers.

Yet the passive voice is activated by authors all too often — so much so that you might not realize that I just did it.  ARRRGH!

If you stand behind something, whether it’s your Web site or your research or anything you seek to assert in writing, it is ridiculous to hide behind a pronoun.

Readers want to believe what they’re reading; they want an authoritative voice. Step out from behind the keyboard and take ownership for your authorship; use the mighty I.

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E-mail Salutations

by Charmaine on February 27, 2009

How long does it take you to stop saying “Dear” or “Hi” in the course of an e-mail exchange? And do you place a comma after the salutation but before the name, even though there’s another comma — blam! — right after the name?

I’m anti-post-salutation-comma and proud of it. My last boss not only used a comma after the salutation, she actually treated the salutation like a sentence and ended it with a period: Hi, Charmaine. It’s not incorrect — and I certainly got used to it — it’s just not what I learned back in typing class. (Yes, I learned about salutations in typing class, not English class. Didn’t you?)

But back to my first question. Liz Danzico (@bobulate on Twitter) did an informal survey of her inbox and calculated that it takes 3.5 e-mails for a responder to drop the salutation. Check out her fascinating post here.

Money quote:

A variety of salutations will likely be used over the course of an email correspondence, and their evolution reveals something about the developing relationship (or the perceived one) between the correspondents. Just as you wouldn’t ignore body language that indicates whether someone is intending to shake your hand or high-five you, nor should you ignore email-greeting intentions — no matter how well you know someone.

We instinctively sense the delay when sending postal mail and would never dream of composing an old-fashioned letter without a salutation. Conversely, the immediacy of e-mail makes formal salutations seem silly. You just said hello five minutes ago. Do you really need to do it again?

Isn’t it odd that we don’t have more choices for salutations? We could get around this awkwardness and say hello 10 different ways. Danzico’s post only mentions four: Dear, Hi, Hey, and Greetings. I’m lucky that, being a New Orleans native, I can also get away with “Hi y’all.” (By the way, that’s y’all, not ya’ll. I realize ya’ll is colloquial, but the contraction is for you all, not ya all.)

What we really need is some kind of shorthand for a response, a repondez s’il vous plait form of “back at ya.” According to Google Translate, the glorious Frenchy way of saying this is retour à vous.

So what should we do?  Start repeated e-mail exchanges with RAV?

I will if you will.

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